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The Story of a Box

December 10, 2009:

The wonderful Box of St Francis continued its journey around the world in November, being passed by ARC's Martin Palmer to the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) on November 4th, as the final announcement of the succesful faiths and environment international celebration, Many Heavens One Earth at Windsor.

And earlier this month Ven. Piyatissa Maha Thero, the chief incumbent of the New York Buddhist Vihara of Sri Lanka, blessed the box before it is entrusted to the Jewish environmental group Hazon, who will take it to California on their eco-friendly Topsy Turvy bus, and present it to Interfaith Power and Light.

Siromi Wanasundera, who works for the UNDP in New York, who was present at the blessing explained:

“The custom at a Buddhist chanting ceremony, known as Pirith, is to have one end of a ball of string placed in a receptacle with water. The string is then unraveled so that each participant in the room touches a portion of the string. In this case, Ven. Piyatissa Maha Thero tied the string around the box before unraveling it for the rest to hold. The chanting/blessing then commenced. Ven. Piyattissa Maha Thero, now in his 80’s, certified on a piece of paper, in his frail and shaky hand the blessing of the box. It really was a moment to behold and meant so much for me to be part of."

The Druze and Maronite History of the Box

In May this year the box returned from Lebanon (see below), and was presented by Druze environmental leader Shekh Sami Abilmona to ARC's Victoria Finlay on the historical Jisr el Qadi bridge. It was to celebrate the announcement of this fragile area as a Druze Sacred Gift to the Earth, bringing the Druze faith tradition onto the international stage as a religion that is known as actively caring for the earth. In its time in Lebanon it had been celebrated by both Druze and Maronite environmental activists, as well as being in the care of the Lebanese forestry NGO, AFDC, which works across the country's faith groups.

To know more about the box, read our earlier story from 2007, below.

The traditional Shinto blessing was changed for a special ceremony in Gotland, in order to include the box in its ritual.
October 26 2007

Last month a wooden box containing a small block of stone was passed, with great ceremony, from a representative of the Swedish Lutheran church to a Sheikh from the Druze community - via ARC's secretary general and a Shinto priest. Thus continued an extraordinary ecologically-inspired journey that started eight years ago with an Italian earthquake, a Swiss carpenter, a meeting with the Pope, wood from six continents, and an idea from ARC.

The story of the box can be traced back to the origin of all ARC’s religious environment work at an event in 1986 in Assisi, Italy.

That year, WWF International, assisted by Martin Palmer who is now ARC’s Secretary General, invited five major faiths to come to Assisi to dedicate themselves to protection of the natural world according to their own teachings and traditions. The five were Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Islam and Judaism.

The event was a great success: it culminated in a ceremony inside the magnificent 13th century basilica of St. Francis and it led: to the commitments by the faiths to work on the environment; to WWF’s commitment to work with the faiths, and later to the foundation of ARC as an independent charity.

In 1999, WWF and ARC decided to hold the next major meeting of the faiths - the largest since the Assisi meeting. By then there were nine faiths involved, with two others preparing to join. It was decided to hold the event in Bhaktapur, Nepal. It was decided to keep a strong link with the event in Assisi where everything had started.

Two years before, Assisi had been hit by a major earthquake and part of the ceiling of the basilica had fallen down, taking with it some treasured fresco paintings. As a sign of their commitment to Bhaktapur, and to the faiths building a future for the planet, the Franciscans of Assisi gave ARC a stone block from the basilica, which Brother Max Mitzi – who had helped design and organise the Assisi event – was to bring to Nepal.

Sheikh Sami Abilmona prepares to take the box to Lebanon to bless their forest and land projects.
A box was commissioned to hold the stone, and it was decided to make it from wood from the six continents – Europe, North America, South America, Asia, Africa and Australia – from trees grown in forests managed according to Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) guidelines. A Swiss carpenter worked free of charge, and six companies around the world donated the wood.

By early 2000 the box was finished – designed with the emblems of ARC, FSC, ARC and the taw symbol of St Francis, showing a cross in the shape of a “T”. In the spring of 2000 the box set out on its long journey to Nepal.

The first stop was Rome, the Vatican and a meeting with the Pope. Before a huge crowd in St. Peter's Square, Brother Max and Steve Howard - head of forestry for WWF International - presented the box to His Holiness who then blessed it.

From there it went by road to Constantinople/Istanbul where the Ecumenical Patriarch and the Grand Mufti of Istanbul blessed it. It also went to Syria where it was blessed by the Syrian Orthodox Church.

Brother Max then took it by air to India where the Dalai Lama blessed it in Delhi, along with the Jathadar of Anandapur Sahib - one of the five heads of Sikhism. The box then travelled overland to Nepal where it was the focus of the great procession through the streets of Bhaktapur and was blessed by many other religious leaders from the Daoists to the Zoroastrians.

From Nepal it was taken to Latin and Central America where for three years it travelled around being blessed by cardinals and archbishops and being present at many environment events from the pilgrimage route of the Huichol people in Mexico to the blessing of Benedictine forests in Latin America.

The box then returned to ARC in Britain – but soon afterwards a request came from Zanzibar. Could it please be sent there - where it would be processed in its own chair through the Muslim villages as a blessing on their projects?

From there it went to Mozambique and Angola for three years where it blessed the new forestry projects of the Church of Sweden and the Churches in Mozambique and Angola.

Last month it resurfaced at the meeting of faiths and forests in Visby, where in an extraordinarily generous gesture it was incorporated into a Shinto ritual, and was ceremiously blessed by the Shinto priests.

Sheikh Sami Abilmona of the IRFAN Foundation run by the Druze in Lebanon, and the directors of the AFDC, forestry protection group in Lebanon then asked if they could take the box back to Mount Lebanon, to bless their forest and land projects, which are run by and for Druze, Shia and Christians.

“I was delighted and surprised to see the box reappear,” Martin Palmer said. “It seems that by accident I and my colleagues in WWF have created a new relic!”

WWF NEWS STORY FROM 2000: First gift arrives in Kathmandu

Monday 13 November 2000
A fragment of the Basilica of Assisi, contained in a unique box made of wood from sustainable forests and blessed by the Pope in Rome, has arrived in Kathmandu as hundreds of delegates assemble for one of the most extraordinary religious and environmental events in recent years.

Representatives from 11 of the world's principal religions have gathered in the Himalayan kingdom to pledge 26 "sacred gifts for a living planet". The event has been organised by WWF and the Alliance of Religions and Conservation (ARC), who believe the effects of the gifts will be of worldwide importance.

The basilica was damaged by an earthquake some years ago, but is now fully restored. The fragment, and the box in which it is contained, are symbolic gifts that will form the centrepiece of celebrations in Nepal.

The other 26 gifts will be announced on Wednesday at a ceremony attended by HRH Prince Philip, International President Emeritus of WWF, and the King and Queen of Nepal. The religions participating are Baha'is, Buddhists, Christians, Hindus, Jains, Jews, Muslims, Sikhs, Shintos, Taoists and Zoroastrians.

"Collectively, these faiths represent billions of people" said Dr Claude Martin, International Secretary General of WWF. "The gathering will call on religious communities around the world to take part in conservation actions locally, nationally and internationally. Together, they will make a huge contribution towards protecting the environment for generations to come."

These practical commitments to the environment come as a result of a joint WWF-ARC initiative which began in Assisi in 1986. There, leaders of the major faiths accepted WWF's invitation to explore religious views on the environment, and this week's event in Nepal is the culmination of those efforts. Together, the religions have influence over some 5 per cent of the planet's land mass and provide around 80 per cent of education systems in developing countries.

"Faith communities want to work in collaboration with WWF and other environmental organisations, and they have a unique role to play because of their histories, core beliefs and influence" explained Martin Palmer, General Secretary of ARC. "The sacred gifts initiative acknowledges what religions have been doing to protect the environment for millennia, often without realising it, and now creates active public commitments. And the concept of 'gifts', of course, is fundamental to all religions."

He added: "WWF and the world's faiths have a common purpose in that they wish for all life on Earth to be full and abundant - which is why we talk about an alliance between religions and conservation. The faiths don't need to appoint their own scientists and WWF doesn't have to become a religion. We are building a partnership that works with the strengths and weaknesses of both sides."

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